Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Editorial control in RTE

One of the side effects of the recent banking crisis has been to expose most clearly the innate tabloid nature of “talk” radio and the virtually complete absence of editorial control at RTE radio, the taxpayer funded and supposedly “public service” national broadcaster.

It’s like the feeding frenzy one sees on UK tv when a politician is wounded and the wolf-pack descends on his/her home baying for blood. “Will you resign today?” any wet-behind-the-ears cub reporter demands of a career politician with perhaps 20-30 years service. Blood-lust and seeking to make a headline replace any human consideration for the plight of the target (or his/her family) who may well be guilty of no more than a minor indiscretion or misdemeanour.

Hardly a programme passes without the presenter calling for the heads of the bankers (or, lately, the odd bishop) – the streets should be echoing to the sound of the tumbrils rattling to the guillotine, most suitably located in College Green, perhaps?

Nowhere is this more evident than on RTE Radio 1 where, from 7am (Morning Ireland) to 7pm (Drivetime) one can expect an “expert” opinion to be voiced on every programme (except, perhaps Ronan Collins from 12-1).

No politician, economist, broker or fellow media “talking head” guest can feature on an RTE “news” programme without being asked why the heads haven’t rolled in the big banks.

Much of the commentary is shallow and populist in nature (Shane Ross-type) and adds little or nothing to the public understanding of the complex and diverse origins of the problem, the multiplicity of players involved (including our own Govt) or the absence of certainty of success for any particular course of action.
It does, however, serve to stoke the fires of resentment in the general public and thus feed the beast that is talk radio – generating phone-calls, emails & texts to fill the broadcasters void and make their lives that much easier. Joe Duffy is probably the best example of how easy it is to feed off public anger, fanned by colleagues on other programmes. I hope Joe sends a very good “Xmas Box” to other presenters by way of thanks for their ongoing help.

Editorial Control (or rather its absence) in RTE

This brings me to the sensitive topic of editorial control and how one might implement something meaningful in an organisation whose culture doesn’t even understand, never mind tolerate, the concept.

As my current gripe relates to coverage of the banking crisis, it brought to mind the mandatory “health warnings” attached to all radio ads for financial products e.g. “values may go down as well as up”, “XX is regulated by.., etc”.
What if RTE was also required to attach a “health warning” to programmes, advising listeners of the limitations of what they may now be about to hear.

For example the Derek Mooney programme might be prefaced by the following health warning:

“Listeners are advised that Derek Mooney is not an expert on agriculture, banking, commerce, driving, education, food, green issues, health services, holiday travel, international events, insurance, justice system, loan arrangements, medical matters, noxious waste, opulence, politics, quandaries of any kind, relationships, religion, sex, stock markets, transport, tourism, urban renewal, voluntary agencies, welfare, x-rated topics, youth matters, zeitgeists of any kind or, indeed, a wide range of other topics.”

Pretty soon it should become obvious to RTE that such a warning would be
(a) very long and
(b) detrimental to any remaining vestige of credibility of the presenter.

RTE would inevitably be faced with two choices, perhaps opting to adopt both:
(a) limit the topic list for Mooney and enforce it and/or
(b) force Mooney to undergo a wide-ranging education programme.

Many RTE programmes could be much improved by such a regime.

Bank bailout - Ireland v. UK

There has been much misinformed media commentary on the failure of the Irish Govt to take ordinary shares in the Irish banks, unlike their UK counterpart.

The reality is that the UK government invested, in the first instance, in preference shares and only acquired ordinary shares as a result of acting as underwriter to major rights issues for RBS, Lloyds-TSB & HBOS.

For example, RBS sought to raise £20bn in new capital - £5bn in preference shares taken directly by the UK government and a £15bn rights issue to existing shareholders, the latter underwritten by the Government. When the majority of existing shareholders failed to exercise their rights, the government ended up buying most of those new shares and became the majority 60% shareholder in RBS. Does anyone actually believe that this was the outcome the UK government desired?

Lloyds-TSB & HBOS sought a total investment of £17bn between ordinary & preference shares and, as with RBS, the UK government ended up with most of the new ordinary shares and currently holds 40% of the stock.

Both AIB and BOI have indicated that they are likely to seek to raise additional capital through a rights issue, with the Irish government acting as underwriter. Should existing shareholders fail to take up their rights, it’s highly likely that the government will become the largest, if not the majority, shareholder in both banks.

In addition, should AIB, Anglo or BOI be unable to pay the annual coupon of the preference shares bought by the Government, the missed dividend must be paid in new ordinary shares at the currently prevailing market price.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Next - the Insurance Pyramid Scheme?

There have been a number of high profile pyramid schemes exposed in recent weeks. Internationally the Bernard Madoff scam which seems to have cost its investors up to $50bn. At home, the Breffni O’Brien scheme seems to be missing as much as €20m – more modest perhaps but involving a small number of investors who can probably ill-afford the deception.

Pyramid schemes have a long history and a simple attraction for investors – they appeal to people who expect high guaranteed returns with little or no risk. This combination is, unfortunately, not generally available. The schemes promise high returns and actually deliver them to early investors. They rely on this perceived high performance to pull in new investors to keep the cashflow strong. However, what’s actually happening is that the money put in by new investors is being used to pay “dividends” and /or capital to earlier investors. This “return” to investors has little, if anything, to do with actual investment income or capital gain earned by the scheme.

Pyramid schemes are naturally illegal and Messrs. Madoff & O’Brien can expect to do jail time for their financial exploits, though one suspects the US system will deal much more harshly with such frauds than the Irish legal system is likely to.

Insurance companies are, on the other hand, quite legal, but are open to being effectively operated as pyramid schemes unless they are closely supervised and scrutinised.

Insurance companies operate on the basis of collecting insurance premiums today to pay for insured events arising at some time in the future. This gives large insurance companies a huge cash float which they can invest to earn a return in the interim. Assuming the company’s investment strategy is sound, the bulk of the company’s profits are likely to come from this investment income, rather than any actual surplus of premium income over claim payouts.

In the current investment climate, with stock markets & property all showing major losses on a worldwide basis, it’s highly likely that any investment fund with an aggressive approach is currently nursing substantial losses in the past 12-18 months. Funds which invested in bank shares, property companies, building materials etc etc will be very badly hit.

So it could be that some insurance companies are effectively in “negative equity” on their funds set aside to meet future claims. This means that existing outstanding claims will also have to be partially met from the premium incomes being generated from new and existing clients, which are intended to cover future, rather than historic, claims. To keep the ball rolling, so to speak, such an insurance company has to maximise new business inflows and, to do this, will probably have to quote the most competitive rates in the insurance market. Which will, in turn, increase the negative gap between income inflows and future liabilities arising from claims.

Ultimately, unless there’s a dramatic turnaround in investment returns, the wheels will come off and the insurance company will go bust – leaving its policy-holders without cover and legitimate claimants unpaid.

Sounds like a pyramid insurance scheme to me.

So who are the most aggressively priced insurance companies in the Irish market and what have they invested their surplus funds in e.g. if Quinn Insurances, FBD, Hibernian etc have made substantial investments in Irish banks e.g. Anglo?

Internationally, where has Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway (owner of some of the largest US insurance companies) invested the surplus cashflow thrown off by those companies?

All we need to follow the international banking crisis is a similar collapse in the international insurance market. The complexity of the huge re-insurance side of the business means that, in the event of a loss of confidence, it will be virtually impossible to establish clearly who’s carrying what risk and how reliable any company’s re-insurance contracts are when it comes to settling liabilities.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Happy Whatsit

Wishing all my readers a Happy Christmas.

Well, ok then - Happy Christmas Bat.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Casting "Greens - the movie".

Watching Energy Minister Eamon Ryan on tv today, it struck me that if they ever make “Greens – the movie” they’ll have to get Nicholas Cage to play him. No-one does tortured sincerity like Cage – though Ryan could give him lessons. Honestly, sincerely!

Environment Minister Gormley might be played by Jim Carrey, though Carrey would have to restrict his performance to a two-faced effort.

Jon Pertwee could play Mary White in a reprise of his Worzel Gummidge persona, he may still have some of the costumes handy.

That leaves Paul Gogarty (as himself?), Trevor Sargent (Bruce Willis, in vegetarian mode?) and Ciaran Cuffe (Andy Serkis as Gollum with clothes?).

Any suggestions?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Catholic Church & Sex

The Pope is at it again and the gay community worldwide is up in arms.

Apparently his “end of year” homily can be interpreted to mean that saving mankind from homosexuality is as important as saving the planet environmentally.

I’ve not bothered to read the offending script – but I have heard some of the media debates and the claims made by the catholic side that the Pope never said this, with the gays saying that it’s the only interpretation one can take from his sometimes oblique comments.

There’s no doubt about two things: Firstly the hostile position of the church with regards to homosexuality and, secondly, the highly insensitive, even if technically legal, language the Vatican routinely employs when discussing the topic.

One interview yesterday clarified, for me, the main problem the church faces in this “battle”. Matt Cooper on TodayFM was interviewing a catholic clergyman about the pope’s reported comments and the church’s position on homosexuality. The cleric explained that the church doesn’t condemn homosexuals, it’s homosexual acts which it finds objectionable. “What’s the difference?” asked a confused-sounding Cooper.

Therein lies the main problem for the church and it’s bigger than the gay community. It relates to all sexual activity – whether straight, gay or transgender.

Liberal western society no longer sees a distinction between the sexual orientation and the sexual act. We are now all deemed to be “sexual animals” - if you’re not expressing your sexuality in a physical way, you are not living a full life.

For the church, the act is the thing. Its condemnation of sexual acts between homosexuals is entirely consistent with its condemnation of sex outside marriage for heterosexuals and its demand for celibacy from its own clergy. (Though its language regarding homosexuality is routinely brutal and offensive when contrasted with any views it expresses on other sexual topics.)

However, liberal western society accepts sex as being nothing particularly sacrosanct. It’s somewhere in the realm of a sign of affection (not necessarily love), an entertainment, a leisure activity or even a form of exercise. As presented in the media (or, indeed, for much of the population) sex seems to have little to do with a long-term relationship or commitment.

The rise and acceptance of the so-called “sex industry” is a clear indicator of what is happening. When you get regular reports of people-trafficking into brothels with little apparent police action or public outcry, lap-dancing bars opening in rural “cities” etc, you know that sex is now a commodity/leisure activity of no great consequence. (Which must have consequences for the legal gravity of rape as a crime. Why should it now be punished at a tariff any greater than that applied to a serious physical assault?)

I’m not clear how much of this "liberal progression" is a willing choice of participants and how much is forced on people who want to be seen to conform to changing mores. Are parents always indifferently happy to their daughters living with boyfriends, and vice versa? Are parents always happy when presented with a grandchild whose parents aren’t married, or may no longer be together? If I had daughters I suspect (ok I know) I’d be strongly disapproving of their cohabitation and/or unmarried mother status.

Unless western society decides that the pendulum has swung too far to the liberal side and starts to move back to a more conservative attitude to sex, the church will continue to be “the voice of one crying in the wilderness”.

One cannot blame the church for maintaining its own moral position with regard to sex (of all kinds), even if it appears increasingly out of step with the world and its own membership, but one can demand that it speaks much more sensitively (i.e. far less offensively) to its own homosexual minority.

New fashion trend for World leaders

The recent trend for world leaders to allow themselves to be photographed topless must surely be putting pressure on Biffo Cowen to do the same.

It’s not a pleasant thought, and it won’t be a pretty sight, but perhaps if Biffo’s advisers get him a better pair of togs he won’t look quite as unsightly as Brezhnev.

Though I’m not betting on that!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Lame duck Dux ducks

But how did Plunkett get onto the podium, when he can't even get into a Lotto photo?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Put the bite back into restaurant reviews.

AA Gill reviews Richard Corrigan’s latest London eaterie, Corrigan’s Mayfair, in today’s Sunday Times.


The review makes it clear that Gill is a genuine fan of Corrigan and he’s highly enthused by this latest culinary venture. He awards it 4 (out of 5) stars, a high mark from Mr Gill who’s not averse to awarding scores of one or two.

However, he did hit one bum note on the menu which is described hilariously, I think, as follows:

“Corrigan has occasional moments where the enthusiasm gets the better of him, and there was a fashion disaster. This was the linguine cooked in red wine, pecorino and bone marrow. It looked, smelt and tasted not a little like, not a bit like, not almost like, but precisely and exactly like drunk’s puke. I didn’t finish it. I didn’t want to meet it twice.”

Doesn’t it just make you pine for the return of Helen Lucy Burke’s razor sharp pen & tongue?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Someone should smart meter the Greens

The installation of smart electricity meters in every home in the country has perhaps been Green Party Minister for Energy Eamon Ryan’s biggest idea since he became minister 18 months ago. He rarely misses an opportunity to plug the initiative (pardon the pun).

In today’s Irish Times, Harry McGee reports on the appearance yesterday of the ESB’s chairman Lochlann Quinn and chief executive Padraig McManus before the Dail All Party Committee on Communications & Energy.


“Senior executives of the ESB indicated publicly for the first time yesterday that the technology was not yet fully proven and that the case had not yet been made that such a substantial investment would result in commensurate savings.”

Mr McManus “said that the utility needed to take a prudent approach before making such a huge investment. That is why smart meters were being piloted over 18 months.”

“Mr Quinn added that rolling out smart meters would cost €1 billion and that would go on all consumers' bills.”

Thank god for a bit of prudence in the ESB on this one.
But isn't it just typical of the Greens – loudly promoting unproven, untested solutions. Throwing ESB/customer money at it to create the illusion that the planet is being saved and therefore Green sell-outs on social and ethical policies can be justified to their electorate.

Lisbon II - the headaches begin.

The thought of another divisive Lisbon Treaty campaign is giving me a headache already.

Assuming it’s the same text, with declarations attached and a promise to incorporate those declarations in the next EU Treaty, we’ll undoubtedly be subjected to the same conspiracy theories and threats – by both sides, though mainly the NO side. (I voted Yes first time, and will again.).

Presumably aircraft leasing mogul Ulick McEvaddy will again offer his assessment that the treaty is unintelligible gobbledygook and should be rewritten in plain English which the ordinary citizen can understand, as if this was the simplest of tasks.

If McEvaddy does surface, I hope someone in the media asks him for a copy of one of his company’s pro-forma aircraft leasing contracts and let us see just how plain and simple that is.
Then ask him if he’d expect one of his clients to sign one of these lease agreements without first having it vetted by an accountant and a lawyer? Or would he himself sign such an agreement without first getting professional advice?

I’ll bet the answer is no. If it’s not, he’s dealing with fools.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Tackling Feral Children

The callous murder of 50-year old East Wall resident Aidan O’Kane has led to media reports which refer to the murderers as “children”. That may be the legal definition based on age, but this is just the latest and most extreme outrage perpetrated by gangs of anti-social young thugs who seem able to terrorise neighbourhoods with impunity and with no credible legal deterrent. The general public feels helpless, not knowing how to deal with these “feral children”, despite this being a problem that has been widely recognised and growing for several years.

Former Minister for Justice Michael McDowell proposed the introduction of electronic tagging but, to date, nothing appears to have been done in this regard. Objectors to this scheme point out that it generally hasn’t had the desired impact in the UK and that such tagging risks becoming a badge of honour among these young thugs.

Could a variant of the UK scheme make a tagging scheme here something that these youths would wish to avoid, rather than becoming something to brag about?

If you attempt to leave a shop without the electronic tag being removed from an item of clothing, it sets off an alarm at the door. Why can’t we reverse this process and design a system where an offender’s electronic tag sets off the alarm when he/she attempts to enter a shopping centre, shop, cinema, pub, club, public building etc etc.? If entry to most such places was barred to tagged offenders, it might just take the hard-man gloss off having to carry the tag. It might also become a bit of a bore to hang around with a tagged friend who can’t get into such places.

Obviously tackling the underlying social problems will require a multi-faceted carrot & stick approach, of which tagging would be just one small element. But we need to make sure that the stick is effective when we choose to use it.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Irish Banks - do they need to be recapitalised?

Do the Irish banks actually need recapitalisation? Do we really need consolidation in the financial services market in Ireland?

In Friday’s (5th) Irish Times, Michael Casey, former chief economist with the Central Bank and a former member of the board of the International Monetary Fund, wrote an interesting opinion piece.


Casey basically posed the questions outlined above. He pointed out that PWC inspectors had done a detailed examination of the loans books of each bank and given their individual capital adequacy levels a clean bill of health under current levels of loan impairment and, indeed, under a number of increased stress tests – albeit the levels of additional stress have not been publicly quantified.

He also pointed out that capital adequacy will, or should, not lead banks to make bad loans to companies struggling in a recession. The UK banks have been significantly recapitalised by the UK taxpayer, yet the SME & mortgage markets there continue to complain about the willingness of banks to lend.

Casey poses the question: “Is it conceivable that the Government wants the banks' capital to be more than adequate, as is now the case in the UK? What does "more than adequate" even mean? Is there a belief that additional - and unnecessary - capital is required to restore investor confidence in the banks?” This appears to be the perceived wisdom among the business commentariat in our media (much of which is woefully underqualified to comment).

He also concludes with, what I regard as, a perceptive comment: “In short, the consultants, Central Bank, Financial Regulator and the entire establishment, including the banks themselves, have now told us that there are no problems of liquidity or of capital. Why then are the meetings with the Government continuing? Either the good news is not quite so good or is there something else we are not being told about? It may all simply reflect a natural human desire to be seen to be doing something.”

Co-incidentally, (also on Friday 5th Dec) Goodbody Stockbrokers published a briefing note which reported that Standard & Poors (S&P), one of the major international rating agencies, “produced a report, which highlights “significant inconsistencies” in how banks account for risks and how much capital they hold under Basel II, making it very difficult to compare banks capital adequacy levels.”


It seems that S&P surveyed c.50 European banks and found that various interpretations of the Basel rules regarding capital adequacy can produce “four-fold differences in risk weights for the same underlying risks”. In other words, banks in the UK, Spain and some Nordic countries have used less conservative estimates of risk than those applied by the Irish banks and a direct comparison between stated Irish and UK capital adequacy ratios is probably invalid.

The Goodbody briefing note concludes that “although the market undoubtedly now requires banks to hold a higher level of capital, it seems unfair that they would also be expected to increase their capital ratios to the same extent as their UK peers.”

Meanwhile, the private equity sharks are cruising while the politicians, the media and the populace are all demanding that the bankers get in the water. (Indeed, the politicians are delighted to have the bankers as a lightning rod to deflect blame for our current economic problems. No mention is ever made of the fact that every budget is the past 10-15 years has contained measures to encourage developers, investors and, particularly, first time buyers to get into the property market.)

Perceived wisdom can be the most dangerous, least informed thought process with the greatest capacity for long-term, perhaps terminal, damage.

If the Irish banks are, in haste,
(a) forced into the arms of private equity at knock-down prices, or
(b) forced into unnecessary consolidations which make the market less competitive
we may all live to regret it at leisure.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Who can speak for the Greens?

Who is authorised to speak for the Greens?

In the recent controversy over Fás chief Exec Roddy Molloy, the Greens denied a media report that they had expressed confidence in Roddy Doyle. They got a retraction on RTE’s Morning Ireland to that effect.

In a subsequent radio debate, Green Cllr Niall O’Brolchain was adamant that “no elected representative” of the party had made such a statement of support.

However, the Indo’s Fionnan Sheahan claimed that the Govt Press secretary assigned to the Greens had made such a statement to the poll corrs, and he offered to produce many witnesses. Sheahan pointed out that this particular official is briefed by the two Green ministers and is mandated to speak on their behalf.

Today’s Morning Ireland interviewed Green Senator Dan Boyle who proposed an extended deferral of the public service pay element of the National Pay Agreement, while that same programme reported a Government denial that it is seeking such a deferral.

If this turns out to require yet another Green u-turn, will we be told that “no elected representative” of the Greens ever made such a call? After all Dan Boyle has been elected to nothing.

Having been rejected by the Cork electorate, he’s only in the Seanad as a Taoiseach’s nominee.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Freezing guinness

In tandem with their decision to freeze the price of the pint, is there any chance publicans might unfreeze the pint of Guinness?

The practice in recent years of chilling the famous stout to lager-like temperatures is akin to serving good red wine from the fridge. Usually a mistake.

When I challenged my local publican about this a couple of months ago, he responded “I don’t come in here to get hassled”. Helpful.

And there was me thinking I was the one who’d taken early retirement.

I've communicated by views directly to Guinness, but I'm not holding my breath. Their latest advertising campaign was themed "fridge magnet". They've clearly taken chilling to heart.

Footnote: Section in italics published as a letter in the Irish Times.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

ABBA for President (No. 2)

In today’s Sunday Times, Matt Cooper raises the awful possibility of Berie Ahern in the park in 2011.


This “campaign” was launched a couple of months ago when Cecilia Ahern expressed the view that her father would make a fine president.

We’ve now seen the Bertie series on RTE and the Drumcondra mafia has been exposed as a smug and unpleasant bunch of chancers.

The prospect of this lot partying up in the Aras doesn’t bear thinking about: “Jaysus lads, we done it! Hey gherkin,(presidential ADC) tell Fagan’s to send up a barrel of Bass and a couple of cases of Piat d’Or pronto and then eff off. Anything in uniform makes us nervous.”

And we’d have the spectacle of Bertie taking his current mot abroad on state visits. It was embarrassing enough when he did it as Taoiseach, we should never tolerate it again.

So it’s ABBA for President.
Anyone But Bertie Ahern.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Stopping the Barbarians at the gate?

I see in the papers that that one of the US private equity firms looking over the Irish banks is KKR( Kohlberg Kravis Roberts), who first came to public attention through their 1988 takeover of RJR Nabisco, in what was, at that time, the largest leveraged takeover in US corporate history.

The deal has become familiar to millions through the book & film “Barbarians at the Gate”.

The basic structure of such leveraged buyouts is that the buyer uses the assets of the target company as collateral, borrowing money against those assets in order to buy them. The general approach is to maximise the amount borrowed and minimise the amount of one’s own capital tied up in the deal.

Then typically, acquisition is quickly followed by slash, burn and asset strip. Reduce costs as quickly as possible, close loss-making or marginally profitable units, dispose of non-core activities and pay down the debt as quickly as possible. Get the business as lean as possible and sell it on for a handsome profit within 3-5 years.

Seeing that KKR name and remembering the movie, it put a mad idea into my head so I went to see my local Bank of Ireland manager.

“Look” I said to him “you fellows need a white knight. If the bank is prepared to lend me €2bn, non-recourse of course, I’ll invest it in the bank and that’ll take all the heat off. You guys can easily raise that money on the international money markets because you’ve got a Government guarantee. I’ll give you the shares I buy as collateral for the loan. With a bit of luck we’ll have turned the corner on the recession and the property bubble bust by the time the Govt guarantee runs out and my loan needs to be refinanced. If not, worst case scenario is the Govt ends up with my shares – still a much better outcome than having those US barbarians on the share register, don’t you think?”

Well I didn’t really know what to expect, but the BOI seem quite interested in my proposition and I’m expecting a positive decision from them within 7 days.

In fact, it all went so well that I decided to pitch the same idea to AIB, Anglo and PermanentTSB. As with BOI, I’ve gotten a very positive response from them all and should know within weeks which, if not all, are willing to play ball.

By Christmas, I may well be the owner of the 90%+ of the Irish banking system. Wouldn’t that be one hell of a do? I better start trying to lose a bit of weight – I’ll want to look good in the Louis Copeland tin of fruit for all those media appearances.

I can already see the headlines in the FT and the Wall St Journal:
Mollox 1 Barbarians 0.

The Government clutching at PR straws.

On Friday morning I heard Plutarchos Sakellaris, vice-president of the European Investment Bank (EIB), interviewed on RTE where he confirmed that four Irish banks are actively negotiating with EIB for access to a pan-European €15 billion fund for lending to small and medium enterprises (SMEs).

It seems that Finance Minister Brian Lenihan also heard that interview because he announced that same evening that he had asked the banks to submit to him their plans for making funds available to the SME sector. This ministerial initiative has received considerable coverage on RTE over the weekend.

It all smacks of opportunistic PR, with the minister attempting to claim credit for an initiative already in train. I suppose desperate times call for desperate PR measures.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Sunday Tribune Restaurant Reviews

I usually read the restaurant reviews in The Sunday Tribune magazine and have been impressed by the generous tipping regime of their current reviewer, Katy McGuinness. A minimum of 20% seems to be the norm, even where the service has been the subject of critical comment in the review. She recently reviewed Shebeen Chic in the company of two friends, was critical of the food, the service and the décor, yet added a €50 tip to a €230 bill.

This week (23rd Nov) she reviewed The Pig’s Ear, on Nassua St, in the company of her editor. The combined bill for the pair amounted to €126.40 to which she added a, for her, miserly 12% (€15) tip. The total amounted €141.40, an unusually modest outlay for this particular reviewer.

Yet she commented in her review that “when a casual early evening Tuesday supper for two costs €70 a head, there is clearly something amiss”. Isn’t it amazing how one’s perceptions and opinions can be influenced by the company one keeps?

Perhaps Fás isn’t alone in needing to review its expenses policy?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Sauvignon Blanc - Shelbourne style

Recent media reports about the legal action by the owners of the Shelbourne Hotel to remove the management company reminded me of my only visit to the hotel, a couple of months ago, since it re-opened.

The wife and I met her brother, Joe, in the front bar. We sat on stools at one of the high tables and waited for service. The bar area, which also serves food, was surprisingly empty for 1.15pm – prime lunchtime.

Service was slow and, when the waitress dropped her tray with a loud clatter while serving people at a nearby table, Joe got up and went to the bar to order a pint of Guinness and two sauvignon blancs.

Joe returned with a puzzled look on his face – “she asked if I wanted ice & lemon in the wine” he reported. All was explained when the waitress delivered the drinks – the pint of Guinness and two 7-Ups.

We laughed and explained the mistake to the waitress. She laughed and told us, in was heavily accented English, that the barmaid was both a bit deaf and didn’t have good English.

We concluded that, in this supposedly 5-star hotel, here was one explanation for the lack of customers in this landmark and centrally located hotel at lunchtime. It certainly didn’t augur well for the financial return on the huge money (c. €250m) spent on buying and refurbishing the place.

So it didn’t come as a major surprise to see that the hotel management is facing a possible eviction order.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Banking on the Barbarians?

The Irish Times has a couple of interesting and divergent takes on the proposed investment of US private equity groups in the Irish banks.

On page one, Simon Carswell (financial correspondent) describes it as “the Irish-led consortium of private investment firms seeking to buy into Bank of Ireland and possibly Irish Life Permanent“. On page 18 John McManus (business editor) sees the situation somewhat differently: “the barbarians are at the gates with their cheque books”.

Carswell reports the declared willingness of the Mallabraca consortium to lend up to €60bn to small businesses over 5 years through the banks. That may sound promising but surely there’s a reality check needed from Carswell? In a recession the increased risk of company failures and further bad debts will influence the actual volume of credit made available. No-one is going to throw finance at badly run or failing businesses.

McManus, on the other hand, reminds us that “you only have to take a cursory look at Eircom - and the destruction wrought by two bouts of private equity ownership”. It’s worth recalling that the initial privatisation battle was won by the Irish-led Valentia consortium, put together by Sir Anthony O’Reilly. The Fianna Fail Government at the time introduced special tax legislation to allow O’Reilly’s debt-laden bid to succeed.

So “Irish-led” does not necessarily translate into “barbarian-free”!

Until the economy comes out of recession, the main thrust of any private equity investors will be to cut costs as ruthlessly as possible and John McManus concludes his opinion piece with a very apt description of what is likely to come next: “One would not want to be a rural TD facing an election while fighting to save the local Bank of Ireland branch as Carlyle, JC Flowers and the like start cashing out”.
I'm with McManus on this one.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Sorting out this mess of a budget.

The Government seems determined to pursue the line that their current poll ratings are a result of a communications problem: to wit, we, the taxpayers, have failed to grasp the scale of the economic downturn and the consequent need to make painful budgetary cuts.

They are right that there is a communications failure, but that failure is mainly that the Government is not listening. We, the taxpayers, were well prepared for painful measures but they, the Government, chose many wrong targets and options. Targeting the over-70s for medical cards, imposing a 1% levy on those earning the minimum wage, penalising infants starting school and depriving 12-year old girls of a potentially life-saving vaccine was not what any of us was expecting. Surely the opinion polls are telling them that?

The budget was a classic mish-mash of mickey mouse measures with no coherent theme or evidence of any vision for economic recovery or for our society. Would the country be better served if they shelved their October “back of envelope” effort and produced a properly thought-out December budget, as originally scheduled?

The main opposition parties have promised support for the right corrective measures. Here's an opportunity for the Government to test their resolve.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Pres & Glasthule residents done by Dunne?

As a past pupil of Presentation College , Glasthule, I would like to express my concern and disappointment about the sale of the former Pres sports grounds on Hudson Rd to Ben Dunne, who proposes to build a fitness centre there.

It’s not that I have any particular objection to fitness centres, but anyone who has seen Mr Dunne recently could hardly argue that he is one of his own best customers. I have little doubt that, in the foreseeable future, this site will be put to a more financially productive, and probably less acceptable, commercial use.

In October last we spent a few days in the Abbeyglen Hotel in Clifden. The afternoon of our last full day there, a banner was hung above the main entrance – something to do with a Ben Dunne Gym in Clifden. On a spin in the car out to the Connemara Golf Club in Ballyconneely, we noticed a helicopter parked – with GYM-H stencilled on the tail. Then we saw Ben Dunne playing golf, a large, overly rotund figure getting out of a golf-cart and hitting a fairway wood.

Later that evening his helicopter did indeed land outside our hotel. As we had my elderly mother in tow, we didn’t stay late in the bar. The following morning at breakfast, who appeared but the bould Ben. He loaded a plate with fried food and regaled other diners with a story of his 3am session in the bar and a monumental hangover. Then he insisted on having Flora, rather than the standard butter on offer, for his "lashings of hot toast". He announced that his doctor had told him to cut out the drink and the butter, and "one out of two wasn’t bad".

I don’t know what age Ben is, but he’s unlikely to enjoy a ripe old age, the way he’s looking/going. Anyone assuming that he, or his proposed fitness centre, will be around in 10 years time is fooling themselves.

The only question about the long-term use of those playing fields is this: will it be LIDL or Aldi?

Shane Ross exposes himself!

Finally, Shane Ross comes clean!

On RTE’s Morning Ireland today, Ross admitted he didn’t understand some of what BOI CEO Brian Goggin had said in an earlier interview, regarding the bank’s half-year results, because “ he disguised it in language no layman could understand”.

But Shane Ross isn’t supposed to be a layman, he’s the business editor of the Sunday Independent and a regular loudmouth commentator on radio & tv, supposedly a business specialist, as he was with on RTE this morning.

I’ve always regarded Ross as a light-weight populist chancer when it comes to business journalism. Now he’s finally admitted it live on air.

It’s only a myth that Caligula made his horse a roman consul. But it’s a fact that Trinity College elected a horse’s ass a senator!

Trinity students and graduates please note.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Wanted: Dunphy's bite back.

Eamon Dunphy’s weekly programme has just started on RTE.

Each week he interviews some well known politician, businessman or celebrity for the guts of an hour. It’s supposed to be in-depth stuff but Dunphy usually manages to give his guests a complete tongue-bath by the end of the show.

Lest we forget, Dunphy was a much feared interviewer in his TodayFM heyday. Now his interviewees face all the menace of the Andrex puppy.

Go back on the drink, Eamon, please.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Barack Obama - Offaly's 2nd current world statesman

Barack Obama’s election as next President of the USA is a welcome and truly extraordinary event – almost no matter how his term in office actually turns out in practice.

Less than 50 years ago, negroes were still legally deprived of many basic civil rights in many US states, so this is a genuinely seminal moment in the history of the USA, probably almost unimaginable for many living African-americans.

On the radio tonight I listened to U2’s “(Pride) In the name of love” – their 1984 tribute to Martin Luther King who was murdered in 1968. For all the ordure heaped on Bono for his good works, this is a song which, both musically and morally, delivers on highly challenging aspirations.

It will be interesting to see how, in the coming years, the example of President Obama, an educated, articulate, well-grounded black man, is reflected in the young black population. Let’s hope for the best.

Currently, black male role models appear to consist only of bling-draped rappers and sports stars, blabbering a largely unintelligible rap patois which mainly focuses on sexism and violence (let’s hope Obama never feels the need to tell us anything about his “bitch”), coupled with ill-matched and badly fitting clothing, particularly the desire to show knicker elastic above jean waistline. Can’t these “stars” afford jeans that actually fit??

So roll on January and the inauguration of President Obama. Big promises to keep, and miles to go before he sleeps. The best of luck to him.

PS: The other world leader with family roots is Offaly is, of course, Ireland's Taoiseach Brian Cowen, aka BIFFO.
In Obama's case, BIFFO stands for "Black impressive fellow from Offaly". Cowen's variant is somewhat less polite.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Sean O'Rourke disses Enda Kenny - again.

Sean O’Rourke has always failed to hide his contempt for Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny. This is probably because he makes no effort to do so.

On RTE's “The Week in Politics” last night when he challenged Kenny with the unsubstantiated anecdotal claim that even long-standing FG supporters roll their eyes to heaven at the thought of Kenny as Taoiseach.

O’Rourke followed this up with speculation that the FG backroom suits might approach Kenny before the next election and ask him to step down as leader.

Surely it is the function of the FG party to select its leader, not the role of RTE or Sean O’Rourke, who exceeded even his own high standard of disrespect and rudeness last night.

I don’t know what O’Rourke’s objective is or what his personal political affiliations are, other than his complete antipathy when it comes to Enda Kenny.

But let the FG party and the electorate decide the fate of Enda Kenny and let O’Rourke learn some bloody manners.

Footnote: I've sent the above complaint to Sean O'Rourke and RTE.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Getting it up for over-40 men!

It may be because I’m in the target age group, but I’m conscious of hearing a plethora of radio ads in the past month on the subjects of "Erectile Dysfunction" and "Testosterone Deficiency" in the over-40 male population. The claim is that 50% of us are suffering from some degree of droop.

It’s a surprise to hear ads relating to what is supposedly a male health issue – the health media is traditionally dominated by female concerns and complaints. Indeed, it has been a cause for complaint that male health matters seem to come a very poor second to those of women.

It strikes me that “erectile dysfunction” may not be on the list of dangerous diseases; I find it hard (no pun intended) to believe that it’s a life-threatening condition. Why aren’t other major men’s health concerns e.g. heart disease, blood pressure, cholesterol, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, colon and prostate cancers etc. etc. the subject of such intensive advertising campaigns?

Is it just possible that this ad campaign may not be intended for the benefit of men at all, but rather it is aimed at fixing a female complaint: they’re not getting enough sex. Middle-aged women, the long-time wives of those over-40s men, are avid viewers of “Sex in the City” and consumers of mountains of chick-lit novels. All of these share a common theme – sexual satisfaction is the right of women – “because you’re worth it”.

However, before any of those 50% of 40+ male sufferers of erectile dysfunction are subjected to any form of medication or medical treatment, I demand that they be subjected to a simple test:
Place the subject, naked, alone in a bedroom with a nubile, naked 18-year old au pair. I’ll wager that most of them will have a miraculous and immediate recovery.

Which reaction may, of course, raise awkward questions, and possibly nothing else, in the marital bed.

On Her Majesty's Service - Halifax, Ulster Bank etc

Following the decision not to participate in the Government Guarantee scheme, Halifax/Bank of Scotland (HBOS) ran full page press ads during the week to reassure customers and to promise to utilise the freedom from the scheme constraints to bring innovative and better value products to the Irish market.

The latter point was the key message from motor-mouth Mark Duffy, HBOS MD in Ireland, in a series of media interviews following the announcement of the decision not to participate.

It’s worth recalling that HBOS, both here and in UK, would now be defunct if the UK government had not stepped in to save that bank. It is still likely that the UK Government will end up as the largest shareholder in a combined Lloyds-TSB/HBOS merged bank.

When the Irish Government announced the bank guarantee scheme, originally confined to six Irish-owned institutions, the UK government protested to Dublin that it would seriously disadvantage UK banks operating in Ireland, while simultaneously giving an unfair advantage to Irish banks operating in the UK market.

Is it safe to assume that the Irish government will be raising similar concerns with their UK counterparts, particularly if Ulster Bank/First Active also opt to stay outside the scheme?

In effect, two UK state-owned banks, themselves recent casualties of the financial services meltdown, will be handed a competitive advantage in the Irish market, potentially damaging the recovery prospects for the Irish financial system.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Putting Conor Lenihan, & the Blueshirts, to bed.

More name calling in the Dáil, with Junior Minister with responsibility for Integration Conor Lenihan giving the nazi salute and calling FG’s Leo Varadkar “a fascist”.

Lenihan is a political buffoon and a national embarrassment. He famously referred to migrant turkish building workers as “kebabs”. What fool put him in charge of policy directed at our immigrant communities? This is one Lenihan gaffe too far, it’s long past time he was demoted to the back benches.

However, Fine Gael’s long-standing embarrassment about its Blueshirt connection may be a bit overdone. After all, the Blueshirts (Army Comrades Association) had been set up primarily to protect Cumann na nGaedhael public meetings, which were being violently broken up by IRA thugs, newly resurgent since the 1932 elections which brought De Valera to power.

Fine Gael was formed in September 1933 when Cumann na nGaedhael, the Centre Party and the Blueshirt movement merged. While O'Duffy became its first leader, he only lasted a year as his more extreme views were unacceptable to the broader Fine Gael leadership. He resigned in Sept 1934.

O’Duffy died in November 1944 and was given a state funeral by the then FF government under Eamonn de Valera.

O’Duffy was only leader of FG for 1 year before being forced out. By way of contrast, Eamon De Valera led FF for decades despite having effectively defrauded the american investors in the Irish Press. Charles Haughey, the most prostituted political leader since the foundation of the state, was leader of FF for 13 years.
Both these FF leaders were also given state funerals.

Footnote: Aired by Pat Kenny on his RTE radio programme.

Brand & Ross - good riddance

Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross – don’t you just weep for them?

Well, not I, actually.

Personally I can’t stand the constant stream of smut and innuendo that passes for wit and entertainment on the Jonathan Ross tv chat show. Russell Brand takes it to another level altogether. I’ve never seen the point of him, never mind finding him anyway funny.

These guys represent the growing trend in “shock comedy”, where bad language and the description of bodily functions seems to be sufficient to get some laughter from their hard-of-thinking audience. It’s like the way small children laugh when they say a rude word they’re not supposed to know, or use, in front of their parents.

Billy Connolly stand-up represents the mainstream form of this, Tommy Tiernan is another tosser who gets laughs from this shock humour.

Russell Brand has resigned from his BBC radio show, I hope they never re-employ him for any show or gig. I also hope that Jonathan Ross gets fired, without compensation, by the BBC. It might just send a message to the rest of the entertainment world that fishing in the sewers is not the same as illuminating the mind.

All of the above reminded me of Gerry Ryan’s recent hosting of the Late Late Show. At the time, I thought that if RTE wanted the Late Late to be the Irish version of the Jonathan Ross show, then Gerry Ryan is just the man for the job. He could hardly restrain himself from bringing almost every topic around to sex – he’s clearly at his greatest ease in the realm of smut & innuendo.

It highlights the problem for the Late Late – can you still combine serious current affairs debates, often involving several participants, with light entertainment?

When RTE had a virtual TV monopoly in much of the country on a Saturday night, Gaybo could cover almost anything with an audience that was generally undemanding. Can it still be done in this day and age, with so much wall to wall media on offer?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Sorting out the Pupil-Teacher ratios

Presumably the vast majority of last September’s new pupil intake to national schools was at the most junior level. This would also have applied to most of those with language and other special needs. These young children, and their teachers, currently have the shortest school day.

Would extending that school day, by, say, one hour, help to ameliorate the impact of increased class sizes by allowing teachers spend more time with their young pupils?

In the stroll to the benchmarking ATM, many routine daily duties were categorised as “extras” in order to justify the payment of significant salary increases to teachers. It has been clear for quite some time that any fresh benchmarking exercise, conducted objectively, would result in salary reductions for much of the public service. That would probably include many teachers.

In those circumstances, is it reasonable for the government to expect teachers and their unions to come forward with constructive proposals to help resolve the current problem, without incurring extra cost for the taxpayer?

Footnote: Published as a letter in the Irish Times.

Friday, October 24, 2008

India's gone to the moon.

India is the second most populous country on the planet (and the largest democracy) with an estimated population of approx. 1.2 billion citizens.
Despite it’s rapid economic growth in recent years, it’s still a relatively poor country with GDP per capita of about $1k p.a.
This means that there are hundreds of millions of its citizens who continue to live in what we would regard as acute poverty.

It’s against this background that we learn that India has successfully launched its first mission to the Moon.

According to the BBC website “the unmanned Chandrayaan 1 spacecraft blasted off smoothly from a launch pad in southern Andhra Pradesh to embark on a two-year mission of exploration. The robotic probe will orbit the Moon, compiling a 3-D atlas of the lunar surface and mapping the distribution of elements and minerals.”
“One key objective will be to search for surface or sub-surface water-ice on the Moon, especially at the poles.
Another will be to detect Helium 3, an isotope which is rare on Earth, but is sought to power nuclear fusion and could be a valuable source of energy in future.”
“The Indian experiments include a 30kg probe that will be released from the mothership to slam into the lunar surface. The Moon Impact Probe (MIP) will record video footage on the way down and measure the composition of the Moon's tenuous atmosphere.”
“Chandrayaan (the Sanskrit word for "moon craft") will also investigate the differences between the Moon's near side and its far side. The far side is both more heavily cratered and different in composition to the one facing Earth.”

“It will also drop the Indian flag on the surface of the Moon. The country's tricolour is painted on the side of the probe and, if successful, India will become the fourth country after the US, Russia and Japan to place its national flag on the lunar surface.”

It would be interesting to see how much new science, if any, will be delivered by this expensive mission, assuming it is successfully completed. One would assume that the USA & Russia, with multiple lunar missions over the past 5 decades, have probably answered all the scientific questions the Indians are now posing.

The reality is that this is a hugely expensive national vanity project as India seeks to keep pace with other space-faring nations in Asia e.g. China & Japan.

An Indian space programme which involved the deployment of satellites to provide communications e.g. national phone, internet, tv & radio coverage etc., weather forecasting, defence etc., might make some economic sense.

There are clearly benefits for India in growing its own R&D capabilities, attracting inward investment etc., from developing leading edge scientific and engineering capabilities, but India sending crap to the moon is, quite literally, a complete waste of space.

Cowen - some thoughts from abroad

The view from the Élysée

“Sacre bleu, quel espèce d'enculé!” muttered President Sarkozy, dropping the diplomatic communiqué on the table beside his unfinished croissant and coffee. “Carla, Cowen est vraiement un branleur!”
Sarkozy’s breakfast table irritation has been caused by the latest report from Ambassador Yvon Roe d’Albert in Dublin, whose update on the budget debacle pulls no punches.

The Ambassador had, earlier in the year, correctly assessed the main reason for the failure of the Lisbon Referendum: the complacency and incompetence of the current Irish Government.

Now, the ambassador spelt out the bleak scenario in his concluding paragraph: (I’ve translated it for you.)
This latest example of the utter political incompetence of the current Irish administration will have serious consequences for your plans to promote a second Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.

This government has succeeded in annoying and alienating several key constituencies, both through some key budget measures themselves, but also in the way they been panicked into undignified u-turns under the first signs of public pressure.

A second Lisbon Referendum, promoted by this Taoiseach and his administration,, will have very little chance of success.

PS: The arse has really fallen out of the Irish property market. We won’t get anything like €60m for the embassy now. Sorry about that, Chief.


The Chieftains in China

RTE’s Margaret Ward, reporting yesterday morning on the Taoiseach’s meeting with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, told us that the half-hour meeting had gone well, the two men discussing world and business affairs. She also told us that “the human rights issue was briefly touched on.”.

So you can just imagine the scene: Wen & Brian sitting there, sipping their green tea.
“Now, Brian” says Wen, “I want to raise with you some concerns we in China have about the way your budget is mistreating old people and very young children.”

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Green Party - victims of Stockholm Syndrome?

Are the Greens suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, political hostages trapped in a Government of their own making?

In today’s Irish Times, political editor Stephen Collins suggests that Green Party Dail representatives engaged in a process designed to pave the way for the party's exit if its coalition partners had not proved amenable to backing down on the medical card issue. This is surely a laughable suggestion.

The budget measures, including the medical card proposal, had been endorsed by all cabinet members, including the two green ministers, and received a standing ovation from all Government deputies, including the Green TDs, on budget day. Indeed on that same day, Minister Eamon Ryan made multiple media appearances, defending the budget and praising the collective cabinet decision-making process, describing how they worked constructively together to arrive at these tough but necessary decisions.

Only when the backlash of public reaction became evident in the following days did Green elected representatives, e.g. Deputy Leader Worzella Gummidge (TD - Carlow Kilkenny) and prospective European election candidate Senator Deirdre de Burca, kick off the backtracking process with the media.

And surely all the evidence to date suggests that the Greens will stick with this Government through thick and thin, on the basis that if the coalition partners don’t hang together they’ll hang separately?

So the Greens have nowhere to go, they are completely compromised by their 18 months in office.

In pursuit of their stated goal of saving the planet, the Greens have been content to park their ethical concerns and look the other way as the former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern blustered his way unconvincingly through months of tribunal hearings. Indeed, Green party leader John Gormley, one of Bertie’s loudest critics when the Greens were on the opposition benches, was transformed into mourner-in-chief when Bertie announced his resignation. Standing at the shoulder of his fallen Taoiseach, one wondered if John would be able to hold back the tears as this mighty stag was pulled down by the pygmies of the opposition and the media.

The current budget shows that they have also been prepared to park Green social policy positions. Presumably, they concur with Mary Harney’s cynical text message: “the worst day in Government is still better than the best day in Opposition.” [as reported by Stephen Collins]

If saving the planet is your goal, then you can justify almost any means to attain that end. The Greens routinely adopt this highly elastic line of defence. Yet it’s clear that the 5-year 15% cumulative reduction in CO2 emissions, set out in the 2007 Programme for Government, will not be achieved unless, perhaps, the country goes into the very deepest economic depression.

If the Greens fall far short of their climate change targets, while simultaneously abandoning long held ethical and social policy positions, will there be a price to pay at the next election?

Who or what can save the Greens now? Only an environmental disaster, I suspect. Every toxic cloud has a green lining.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Patriotism is the last refuge of Fianna Fail

Doctor (Samuel) Johnson (1709-1784) famously said that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”.

Finance Minister Brian Lenihan inadvertently reminded us of this truism with the closing line of his budget speech last Tuesday.

Having squandered the boom years, the Government is now demonstrating how to foul up a recovery programme. It’s handling of the over-70s medical card issue should be a case study in how not to do it.

The two Brians have gone from zero to hero and back again in the space of a couple of weeks.

What an incompetent bunch of scoundrels!

It also strikes me that PD will always be with us – as we exit the Progressive Democrats, enter Patriotic Duty.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Clipping the President's wings.

Seán T. O’Ceallaigh, President of Ireland 1945 – 1959

On Ryan Tubridy’s radio programme yesterday, former FG Minister Gemma Hussey suggested that one cost-saving measure the Government might consider would be a reduction in the number of state visits made by our current President Mary McAleese.

On her frequent travels abroad, the president is invariably accompanied by her husband, a number of aides and, frequently, a senior government minister. It’s quite a little circus and an expensive one, too.

Gemma’s suggestion reminded me of a story told by my aunt who was an Aer Lingus hostess in the early/mid 1950’s. President O’Ceallaigh was going to some meeting in Paris and my aunt was chosen for that flight because she would be able to greet him “as gaeilge”.

So she duly welcomed him on board, showed him to his seat and took his hat and coat to hang up.

Carrying the coat, she was surprised to feel something hard and bulky in it. When she was behind the curtain hanging up the coat, out of curiosity, she took a peek in the pocket and was surprised to find a large packet of tea. So even back then the tea in France was obviously rubbish.

But what a contrast between our then president carrying his own tea and the present “royal family” type entourage we routinely send out. We mightn’t want to go quite that far, but a little less of the regal hauteur and the travelling court wouldn’t go amiss.

They always get you in the end

My mother tells an interesting tale about her personal dealings with that Mother Teresa figure who is now our caring Minister for Social Welfare.

In the late 1990s my mother was suffering from variety of medical complaints, including angina, which required her to pay frequent visits to her GP, probably at least once a month. She was living on a teacher’s widow pension which put her very marginally over the income threshold for a medical card.
The GP knew my mother’s circumstances and was aware that the cost of those visits and prescription costs were a material financial burden.

The GP suggested she should apply for a medical card, to which my mother replied that she was over the income limit and had already made an unsuccessful application.
The GP told her that exceptions could be made and recommended that she visit a local Government TD who could probably pull the necessary strings.

So my mother attended the constituency clinic of local FF TD Mary Hanafin, recently elected in 1997.
My mother explained her medical and financial circumstances and asked if Ms Hanafin could help. She may also have been naïve enough to reveal that she’s a life-long FG supporter, but promised to switch allegiance if the requested help was forthcoming.
Having listened to my mother, Hanafin fixed her with a steely stare and pronounced “there’s nothing wrong with you”.

My mother came home feeling completely humiliated, angry and, of course, empty handed.
A couple of years later, in 2001, the introduction of universal medical cards for the over-70s (a ploy for the upcoming 2002 election) got my mother out of her difficulty and has proved very valuable – she’s had a number of serious medical problems in the interim, including a heart attack a few years back. She’s now on a daily cocktail of 16 tablets and a nitro-patch.

In the interim, her public service widows pension has improved substantially ahead of the rate of inflation, thanks to bench-marking and linkage to annual teacher salary increases etc – so it’s highly unlikely she’ll qualify under the revised regime announced in yesterday’s budget.

So I visited my mother last night and broke the news to her that she’ll probably lose her entitlement to a medical card under the aegis of Social Welfare Minister Mary Hanafin.

“She got you in the end, Ma.” I said.
“They always do.” she replied.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Green Mudguard

One might consider that a positive aspect of the budget has been the level of solidarity among the Government coalition partners in defending the more unpalatable measures.

Even while the opposition finance spokespersons were still responding in the Dail, Green Minister Eamon Ryan featured on both Newstalk and RTE, defending unpopular elements such as the universal income levy and the removal of the over-70s medical card.

However, material measures to promote the environmental agenda were notable by their absence. So while the Greens have always been keen to promote greater use of the bicycle, is their eager transformation into Government mud-guard a step too far?

Firing blanks at Ryan Tubridy

Ryan Tubridy opened his radio programme this morning with “Road to nowhere” (Talking Heads) and had a good laugh about the recession, the “return to the 1980’s” and the tough budget due today.

According to last sunday’s Indo, Tubridy is paid €346k p.a. by RTE – supplemented, no doubt substantially, by extra curricular activities – PR appearances, openings, after dinner speeches etc..

So I sent him the following email. I’m not expecting him to respond, read it out on air or, god forbid, take the action suggested. I just thought I’d rattle his cage.
Indeed, I might modify the email and send it to some other RTE employees.


RTE is the biggest earner of advertising revenue in the country, supplemented by a couple of hundred million euros from that arbitrary tax on every household in the country, the television licence fee.

Yet RTE considers it a major triumph if it actually manages to breakeven each year. The organisation is living perpetually in cloud cuckoo land when it comes to understanding the real economy because all its commentators are wrapped in cotton wool the rest of us have paid for.

One of the reasons for RTE showing no profit is that it systematically overpays its “stars” – like yourself. How can you justify that massive annual salary for what is, in effect, a part-time job?

Yet you mock the rest of the country with your “Road to Nowehere” choice of music, it’s all a good laugh in Montrose – a good source of topics for filling airtime.

So go on, Ryan, announce that you’re taking a voluntary 10% pay-cut – in the national interest and to show empathy with your listeners – you’re not only feeling their pain but you’re actually willing to share it.

It might also put some pressure on that fat slug Gerry Ryan!

According to last week's Sindo, the following are some of RTE's high-earners:

Pat Kenny €850k
Gerry Ryan €558k
Marian Finucane €455k
Joe Duffy €367k
Ryan Tubridy €346k
Derek Mooney €242k
Miriam O'Callaghan €221k

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Banks already repaying the Government

It’s good to see that the banks are already beginning to indirectly recompense the Government for providing the state guarantee.

For while the politicians, media and general public all heap opprobrium on the bankers, no-one is pointing the finger at the Government who, for at least the past decade, have been responsible for furiously pump-priming the construction sector. This continued apace despite the clear evidence that the economy had become increasingly over-reliant on the construction sector.

A plethora of grants and tax breaks have fuelled the excesses as investors, which included many first-time buyers, sought to buy into guaranteed easy gains in an ever-rising property market.

Now that the bubble has burst, it’s easy enough to spot the financial losers – recent investors, construction workers, banks, developers etc.. But, other than the developers, who were the big winners over the past decade? Could it have been the Government, representing the Irish public?

The billions of euros collected each year in construction-related VAT, Stamp Duty, Capital Gains Tax, Corporation Tax, PAYE/PRSI etc exceeded, by a large multiple, the annual profits made by the entire financial services industry from funding construction activity and mortgages.

I don’t recall too many public protests when our personal tax rates were falling, subsidised by the sea of money flowing into Government coffers from the housing & construction boom.

Footnote: a slightly abridged (by IT) version published as a letter in the Irish Times.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Irish Financial Markets - who's to blame?

Much of the commentary on the current crisis in financial markets is badly ill-informed e.g. there is very little similarity between the US sub-prime market and the Irish mortgage market.

Everyone seems happy to blame the crisis on the greed of the banks. That allows us, the great unwashed, forget about our own greed – who was it again who was going to be the major beneficiary of ever-rising house prices?

The government is more than happy to allow banks to take the blame. But who was there priming the pumps with tax reliefs/special schemes for first-time buyers (who were mainly investors!), investors and property developers?

Politicians (e.g. PDs), media commentators (e.g. Shane Ross) etc all shouted for more competition in the mortgage market. Enter HBOS (and motor-mouth Mark Duffy) giving 100% mortgages – all the domestic lenders are forced to follow suit, some to a much greater extent than others.

There’s plenty of blame to go around, so let’s share it out on a more equitable basis: the Government, the banks and the borrowers all need to share the load.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Damian Hirst - eat your heart out!

God, isn't it a depressing time? The country is officially in recession, the arse has fallen out of the stock market – particularly the financial sector to which I am heavily exposed – and my house is worth a couple of hundred thousand euros less than it was a year ago, and with further to fall. All thoughts of divorce must be deferred.

How to find a suitable scam to reverse these severe financial setbacks?

Then I read of Damian Hirst’s recent auction results at Sotheby’s – in two days he sold over stg£100m of his art, aka crap. His is the ultimate scam – it’s “conceptual art” so he doesn’t even need to make the damn things himself, merely come up with the idea and get some workshop to make the piece, to which he only has to append his signature.

So I headed into Fannin’s medical suppliers in town and bought a plastic skull. Then down to Wicklow where I collected several sacks of sheeps droppings – those rounded pebbles of shit they leave scattered like black currants on the grass.

Now I’m busy, rubber-gloved, sticking the little balls of sheep shit to the skull which I’m hopeful of exhibiting and selling for a small fortune, even if it’s just a serious piss-take on the works of Master conman Hirst. Of course, my artistic skull isn’t that pleasant to handle and, in hot weather, the whiff is pretty foul, but that shouldn’t deter the serious art poseur. Collectors too must be prepared to suffer for their art, after all.

Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull in titled “For the Love of God”. I’m sure my effort will evoke a similar response, perhaps with even more gusto.

Of course, to stage an “exhibition” I’ll need more than just one piece so I’m also working on a major formaldehyde exhibit, “Motion in poetry”. I thought that one of my turds suspended in a glass case would rival Hirst’s famous multi-million £ sharks. My inspiration was a former work colleague who, returning from the loo after a successful drop, would inform all and sundry “that one will be stalking the sewers”.

Naturally, such an installation will also require a truly specimen-class stool and my efforts to date have been frustrated by the piles. Routine inspection of the drop has, to date, failed to reveal a suitable specimen. Nevertheless, I remain confident that my increased intake of bran will, in due course, produce the goods.

After that I have in mind a series of projectile vomit paintings that should sell like hot cakes.

There’ll be no stopping me!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

ABBA for President!

No, I’m not getting carried away by the success of Mamma Mia the movie, or on a wave of nostalgia for the fab four from Sweden.

Cecilia Ahern was widely quoted in the media during the past week, extolling the virtues of her father and opining that he would make a wonderful president.

President Mary McAleese isn’t due to leave the park until 2011, but it can never be too early to start an “Anyone but Bertie Ahern” campaign.

Footnote: An edited (by IT) version published as a letter in the Irish Times.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Lipstick on a pig - Irish Economic Management

In a letter published in today’s Irish Times, Dan O’Brien, Senior Editor – Economist Intelligence Unit, points out that the EU Commission's evaluation of Ireland's public finances management, contained in "The Public Finances in EMU" (2007), placed Ireland last among the 18 EU countries it assessed in its overall rankings.
On its specific measure of prudence in budget planning, Ireland not only ranked last, but uniquely failed even to register a score.

Strong and scary stuff, indeed! Why haven’t we heard this cited before – either by opposition spokesmen or the media?

Might this suggest that the Government’s claim to a record of competent management of the economy in the boom years is an attempt to put lipstick on a pig?

Friday, September 05, 2008

Pit-bulls in the White House?

What’s the difference between Dick Cheney and Sarah Palin? Lipstick?

The two-term Bush regime has never been short of pit-bulls. The rest of the world has learnt that this particular breed should have no place in the
White House.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

It's time to declutter the Olympics.

A letter in today’s Irish Times makes a plea for Beach Volleyball to be taken more seriously as an Olympic sport. (roll eyes)

I freely confess that I include it with “sports” such as Synchorised Swimming, Synchronised Diving, Gymnastic Streamer Twirling etc in the long list of sports which, I feel, have reduced the Olympics to little more than a 5-ring circus.

Would you believe that gold medals were awarded in 302 events at the Beijing Olympics? How many of these events could be dropped without most people noticing?

A new process is urgently required to trim this growing circus to more manageable proportions and determine which sports should be allowed. Thankfully, the selection criteria are already described in the Olympic motto: "Citius, Altius, Fortius" (faster, higher, stronger). Any sport where victory does not depend on one or more of these three attributes should be automatically ineligible for inclusion in the Olympics.

This would reduce the number of events to something far more manageable and, most importantly, more credible as real sports.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Rugby ELVs & Lansdowne 10-year Tickets

What impact will Rugby Union’s Experimental Law Variations (ELVs) have on the success, or otherwise, on Ireland’s international team?
Thirteen changes in the existing rules will be effective for the 2009 6-Nations competition. Several of these ELVs result in the awarding of a free kick, rather than a penalty.
In the past several years, Ireland has been particularly dependent on the penalty-kicking ability of Ronan O’Gara to keep the scoreboard ticking over, but also to advance our forwards up the touchline. If, as now proposed, many of the infringements will only result in a free-kick, this source of points or territorial advance will be severely curtailed.
This comes at a time when our backline seems to have lost it’s cutting edge, it’s ability to breakthrough the opposition defence. Denis Hickey and David Humphries have retired, Ronan O’Gara couldn’t break out of a paper bag, Brian O’Driscoll has turned into a very good back-row forward and Gordon Darcy has completely lost his form for the past couple of years.
How will Ireland fare in this new rules environment? Where will the points come from?
Will the new Lansdowne Road become the venue for routine away victories for the Italians?
Will those who paid €15,000 for 10-year tickets wonder how they could have been so dazzled by the sun shining out of the backside of the Celtic Tiger?

And speaking of those expensive 10-year tickets, here’s the awful scenario that awaits the holders of those €15,000 duds:
Either Ireland are crap, routinely vying for the wooden spoon, and play to sub-capacity crowds in Lansdowne Road, where getting a ticket is no longer a problem, thus rendering the expense of the 10-year jobs a needless extravagance OR
Ireland play well, attracting more demand than the 50,000-seater Lansdowne can accommodate and the bigger rugby fixtures are routinely transferred to Croke park, to avail of the 83,000 capacity there.
I have no doubt that the GAA will be quite amenable to the extra revenue, having gotten over the moral issue of garrison games on sacred turf some time ago.
Either way I sleep soundly in my bed, thankful that I missed the opportunity to fork out €15,000.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Willie O'Dea & the Temple of Gloom

Defence Minister Willie O’Dea demonstrated his usual facility for vulgar abuse in his recent attack on Enda Kenny, following the opposition leader’s critique of Brian Cowen’s performance as Taoiseach in his first 100 days.

We’ll have to await the return of the Dail to see what the Grumbleboor of Tullamore will pull out of the hat to silence his growing band of critics.
It will hardly be a dove, too symbolic of peace for a man who clearly prefers aggression, but let’s hope it’s not just that tired old white rabbit named Willie.

Footnote: Published as a letter in the Irish Times. I can't believe it!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Bush & Co in the Kremlin

In a letter published in yesterday’s Irish Times, Senator David Norris highlighted the irony of President Bush lecturing the Russians that “bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy”, with regard to that country's actions in Georgia.

It doesn’t require any great leap of the imagination to see Messrs Bushkin, Cheynedvedev and Rumsfeldski acting and talking tough from the Kremlin, ably represented at the UN by Ambassador Boltonov.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

3rd Level Fees - who should pay?

Education Minister Batt O’Keeffe has, predictably, stirred up a middle-class hornet’s nest with his proposal to review the possibility of a re-introduction of 3rd level college fees.

Clearly, many people will have planned their finances on the basis of not paying 3rd level college fees and the re-introduction of such fees could be a heavy financial burden for an extra 3-4 years per student.

The paradox is that many of those who object to paying 3rd level fees are the very people who have chosen to send their children to fee-paying secondary schools, rather than free schools. It is argued that the current system has merely allowed some parents to subsidise 6 years of secondary education by avoiding 3rd level fees.

This includes the use of grind schools, the ubiquitous “institutes” which enjoy a roaring trade in seeking to maximise Leaving Cert CAO points. In turn, this drives up the number of points required for entry toUniversity courses, creating a further barrier to those from disadvantaged backgrounds – the very people who were supposed to be the main beneficiaries of free 3rd level education.

In Dun Laoghaire, 3 “free” schools have closed since the introduction of free 2nd level education – CBS Eblana Avenue, Dominican Convent and, most recently, Presentation College Glasthule. That’s several hundred “free-school” places lost as local parents have chosen to send their children to alternative schools – mostly fee-paying.

So here’s my proposed solution: Pupils who attend free second-level schools will receive free 3rd level education as heretofore. Those who attend fee-paying schools and/or grind schools will, subject to a means test, be liable for 3rd level fees. Such fees might be capped at the same level as the fees paid in the student’s final year at 2nd level, depending on the parents annual income.

The passing of Ronnie Drew

Today’s media are filled with glowing tributes to Ronnie Drew whose cancer finally caught up on him. Ronnie was 73, but who would have believed he’d survive that long given the alcohol-fuelled and cigarette-fumed lifestyle “enjoyed” by The Dubliners for decades.

Ronnie was a genuine legend in his own lifetime, beloved by several generations of all classes. This despite being an often grumpy git who didn’t suffer fools.

With Ronnie passes the Irish ballad scene, which has been in steady decline since the heyday of the Dubliners. Now it survives in tourist-trap pubs in Ireland and in the thousands of “Irish Bars” throughout the world. Come to think of it – would any of those “Irish Bars” exist today if it wasn’t for the ethos created by the Dubliners?

Let’s hope the many musical tributes we’ll be hearing in the coming week will be Ronnie and the The Dubliners performing, rather than that poxy “Ballad of Ronnie Drew” recently recorded as a tribute by an array of musical “stars”. It’s a cringe-making effort which should now be consigned to the jukebox known as dustbin.

I’m sure Ronnie agrees – “hey Ronnie, knock once if you think I’m wrong.” There, I told you.

The wife was collecting a neighbour from St Vincent’s Private Hospital last Tuesday. While she was waiting, a very sick-looking man was brought through in a wheelchair. When she got home she told me she thought it was Ronnie Drew and, if it was, she didn’t think he was long for this world. Sadly, it looks like she was right – for once.


Saturday, August 16, 2008

A pet is for life.

My sister and her partner suffered the demise their much loved Ella earlier this year, a dog they’d had for about 12 years. There was much upset, the loss of Ella was a bereavement in the family, a traumatic experience.

They quickly determined to get a new dog and a 12-week old springer spaniel pup has now arrived. However, assuming that the new arrival is held, in due course, in similar affection to Ella, the trauma of the death of a well-loved pet will inevitably be repeated in 12-15 years time.

This got me to thinking that, in order to avoid such upset, it would make sense to choose a pet which will outlive you.
The giant Galápagos tortoise is one possibility, though taking it for a walk in the evening might be a tedious affair. But they live to 150+ years, and they’re quite a manageable size for the first 30-odd years.

But you get the gist of my proposal, it’s up to each individual to identify a long-living pet s/he will enjoy. It should be entirely possible Google “animal longevity”, with a view to finding a suitable pet which should outlive you.

And here’s the twist – rather than facing the inevitable loss of a pet, instead you’ll find yourself worrying about who’ll look after him/her when you’re gone!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Russian invasion of Georgia - questions for Ireland

Russia’s invasion of Georgia poses some interesting questions for Ireland’s policy on energy security and neutrality .

The need to ensure European energy security, currently heavily dependent on Russian oil and gas, is likely to mean that nuclear energy will become a much more attractive option than heretofore. Ireland cannot be immune from such considerations. Minister Ryan’s promised “debate” on nuclear energy may not prove to be the foregone conclusion he appears to think it is.

Ireland’s neutrality is copper-fastened by our commitment to only become involved in foreign missions which have been sanctioned by a resolution of the UN Security Council. Yet what is the basis for the moral authority of that body, as currently constituted?

China, France, Russia, UK & USA, the five permanent members of that Council, each holds a veto over any such resolution. China is in the dock over human rights in general and Tibet in particular. France has recently been indicted by the Rwandan government over its alleged complicity in the 1994 genocide in that country. Russia has demonstrated in Chechnya that it will be utterly ruthless in defending its own interests. Russia’s action in Georgia, to date, is only in the halfpenny place compared to Chechnya. UK & USA bypassed the UN for their 2003 invasion of Iraq, while the USA continues to defy international law through the ongoing operation of Guantanamo and its policy of extraordinary rendition.

Churchill’s famous dictum that “jaw jaw is better than war war” is still valid and it is undoubtedly worthwhile to have a forum such as the UN for “jaw jaw” among the major powers.

The moral authority of the Security Council must now be threadbare at best, it’s almost as if the lunatics have taken over the asylum Surely it’s time for Ireland to behave like a mature democracy and take its direction from our own moral compass?

Footnote: Published as a letter in the Irish Times.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Are you watering your lawn?

Two facts:

1. The Government has recently announced cutbacks in Departmental spending on advertising and PR, as part of a wider programme of cost-cutting measures.
2. This is one of the wettest summers on record, with typically 3-4 times the long-term average rain fall in June & July, with the forecast for August no better.

Yet we’re currently being treated to a series of radio ads warning people not to waste precious drinking water by watering their lawns.

It’s simply unbelievable that people would be watering lawns this summer, given the volume of rainfall the entire country has been drenched with. In fact, owners of lawns have been hard pressed to get a couple of dry days in which to cut their grass!

So what idiot decided to create and air these completely irrelevant ads at public expense? Is it simply another case of utter incompetence in the public service? Or is it some cynical civil servant showing two-fingers to the Government and, more pointedly, his/her own line minister?

Whichever it is, someone should be getting a boot up the backside.

PS: I've subsequently spotted some large billboard (48-sheet) posters promoting the same idiotic message.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Gordon Brown - rewrote "loyalty to leader" rules.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown & the Labour Party seem to be in a spot of bother, according to all the polls, and the political pundits in the UK seem to think that Foreign Secretary David Miliband has shown his hand as a putative successor.

Brown supporters in the Labour party have accused Miliband of disloyalty and now demand that he be demoted as punishment for this heinous crime.

This is laughable.

Almost from the day Labour won their third successive general election in May 2005, Brown and his acolytes plotted the overthrow of Tony Blair and used every available opportunity to undermine him and hasten his pre-announced but undated departure. Multiple plots and attempted political coups were evidenced before Blair finally went in June 2007.

So Brown himself rewrote the rules of the British Labour Party with regard to loyalty to the leader and perhaps he’s now about to reap the whirlwind.

Tony Blair must have mixed feelings about the current situation. No doubt he allows himself a wry smile as he watches Gordon discover that it’s not that easy to be PM, but Blair cannot be happy to see his party face a future, and quite possibly a long one, in opposition.

But I’d like to be a fly on the wall whenever Blair chats with Alistair Campbell about Gordon’s tribulations. The cup of human kindness might not exactly be overflowing, I suspect.

Brian Cowen - the Lisbon impasse!

Stephen Collins has shocked some Irish Times readers with his recent proposal that the Dail, rather than the electorate, should now ratify the Lisbon Treaty.

However, the likelihood of Brian Cowen taking the political risk involved seems even less than the likelihood of him actually getting a second referendum successfully past the post.

Finding our way out of the Lisbon impasse seems as far away as ever, particularly now that Mr Cowen has managed to further damage the cross-party political consensus in favour of the treaty.

Having been very late out of the traps, due to the distraction of Bertie Ahern’s extended lap of honour, followed by his own coronation and victory lap, Mr Cowen still felt it appropriate to give a very public slap in the face to Fine Gael, his largest political pro-Lisbon ally. That party’s natural resentment can be viewed in a new light, as analysis of the advertising spend on the campaign shows that Fianna Fail invested only a small fraction of the amount spent by Fine Gael.

Then the Taoiseach sought to exlcude the leaders of the two main pro-Lisbon opposition parties in the meetings with President Sarkozy, on his recent visit, thus relegating them to the same status as the unelected faction leaders on the NO side, who were each invited to make a three minute presentation at the French embassy. Only the public refusal of Messrs Kenny & Gilmore to accept this sidelining caused a last minute change of heart and averted a highly embarrassing diplomatic gaffe.

So when President Sarkozy came to call, he didn’t have to travel far to find the main reason for the failure of the referendum and the main obstacle to a successful re-run; it greeted him on the steps of Government Buildings.

Unless Brian Cowen demonstrates an ability to build rather than destroy political consensus, there’s no possibility of the Lisbon Treaty being ratified in Ireland.

Footnote: Published as a letter in the Irish Times but, sadly, they chose to edit out the Sarkozy bits (in italics) which I thought represented the most recent and relevant Lisbon concensus cock-up by Cowen.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Libertas political coup derails Lisbon Treaty

I think we’ve just witnessed a bloodless political coup, masterminded by the hitherto (politically) unknown Libertas organisation.

That coup successfully overthrew the aspiration of the democratically elected Government and both main opposition parties to pass the Lisbon Treaty. By doing so, it also set off a domino political crisis in 26 other democratic states which comprise the EU and many of which have already ratified the treaty through their parliaments.

A question which inevitably arises is whether Libertas is a genuinely Irish-born organisation or a front for some external party or government with an interest in derailing the EU project. Libertas was founded by businessman/oligarch Declan Ganley, but the political objectives and funding of that organisation are unknown at this point in time.

You have to ask who would be interested in scuppering the EU? Presumably parties intent on preventing the EU developing greater economic, political, diplomatic and, perhaps, military power on the world stage. The USA and Russia spring to mind.

Libertas founder Declan Ganley has strong connections in both countries. His company, Rivada Networks, provides telecommunications facilities to US-government agencies e.g. the national guard, police services, FEMA etc., while his early business career was built around the export of metals, particularly aluminium, from Russia.

It would have been easy to identify Ireland, the only country holding a referendum, as the weakest link in the Lisbon Treaty ratification chain. Is that what happened?

Another possible objective of the coup is the personal political ambition of Declan Ganley and the use of the Lisbon Treaty as a launch pad for his political career.

Ganley was the guest on Eamon Dunphy’s RTE programme yesterday where he revealed that, at the time Latvia declared independence from the USSR in August 1991, he was very friendly with members of the Latvian Popular Front, many of whom ended up in the first Latvian Government. His connections there arose from the fact that his company exported it’s Russian metals through Riga, the capital of Latvia.

Ganley expressed great admiration and enthusiasm for these Latvian patriots. When asked where these people were on the politcial spectrum, Ganley agreed that they were broadly conservative, with nationalists and some socialists in the mix. Much of Ganley's own rhetoric smacks of nationalism, patriotism, pride in irishness etc etc..

One suspects he's probably some brand of neo-liberal nationalist, but the fear is that Libertas might just stray into neo-fascism, given the political colour of some of its anti-Lisbon political bed-fellows. Not exactly a collection of dyed-in-the-wool democrats.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Mansergh defends 2003 Decentralisation "Plan"

Monday’s Irish Times “Head to Head” debate on the 2003 Decentralisation Plan , between Minister for State Martin Mansergh and AHCPS Dep.Gen.Sec. John Kelleher, provides some interesting insights into Government thinking in this area and its broader understanding of its own Spatial Strategy.

Defending the plan, Martin Mansergh paints an idyllic picture of civil servants decentralised to Tipperary town, informing us that they “are very happy to be within 15 minutes or less commuting distance from home”. The agency in question is the Immigration & Naturalisation Section of the Department of Justice. Minister Mansergh makes no reference to the commuting convenience, or otherwise, of the customers of this agency, whenever this might prove necessary. Customer convenience is clearly not a relevant consideration in Government thinking.
This lack of consideration for customers is confirmed by John Kelleher in his contribution on the topic, in which he illustrates a number of other examples of illogical relocations e.g. the Irish Prison Service to Longford, the Development Aid section of Foreign Affairs to Limerick, the Public Appointments Service to Youghal and the Equality Tribunal to Portarlington.

Minister Mansergh defends the lack of fit between the 2003 Decentralisation “Plan” and the 2002 National Spatial Strategy, explaining that “practically all the hubs and gateways already have civil service buildings, under previous decentralisation programmes.”
Yet a key objective of the 2002 National Spatial Strategy was to concentrate future development in a finite number of identified locations, the gateways and hubs, in order to achieve sufficient scale in those locations to support economic delivery of services and infrastructural investment.
Instead, the 2003 Decentralisation Plan proposes to scatter 10,300 civil servants to 53 locations, most of which are neither gateway nor hub, and Minister Mansergh is clearly happy to defend this “one for everyone in the audience” approach.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen has identified reform of the public service and extraction of better value for money as a key political priority. The thinking demonstrated in Minister Mansergh’s contribution, allied to several additional drawbacks outlined by John Kelleher, wouldn’t inspire any great confidence in a happy outcome for either public servants or taxpayers.

Footnote: Published as a letter in The Irish Times.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Is Lisbon Treaty 98% of the EU Constitution?

Former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing has claimed that the Lisbon Treaty is 98% identical to his failed EU Constitution.

“The EU Constitution has now been repackaged as the Lisbon Treaty.”

“The EU Constitution has not been repackaged as the Lisbon Treaty.”

Both the above sentences are more 98% identical, but their meanings are quite different.

Could that be what he means?

What's clear is that any major document could be modified by the inclusion or exclusion of key sentences, phrases or single words and its meaning can be substantially changed. So the "98%" claim can be essentially meaningless.

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